U.S. projected to soon be world's top energy producer

According to a report released November 12 by the International Energy Agency (see also this New York Times article), the United States is projected to pass Russia as the word's top producer of natural gas by 2015. (The International Energy Agency was formed in 1974 by oil-importing nations, including the U.S., in response to that year's oil crisis.)

Then just two years after that, we're expected to pass Saudi Arabia as the largest oil producer. And 13 years after that, we're on track to become a net oil exporter.

All in all, in just 20 years the U.S. is likely to be entirely energy self-sufficient.

All this reflects a radical change in outlook over just the past few years, thanks in part to rapidly improving extraction technology (some of it controversial) and a sharp rise in production, but also large part to greater efficiency and conservation, such as the higher automobile fuel economy standards mandated by the Obama administration earlier this year. The IEA report may prove surprising to some (for example, those who believed the Romney campaign's claims that Obama was somehow reducing U.S. oil production), but the U.S. shift toward energy independence has been increasingly clear for some time, as witness for example this NYT article from back in March.

As that earlier article pointed out, "Not only has the United States reduced oil imports from members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries by more than 20 percent in the last three years, it has become a net exporter of refined petroleum products like gasoline for the first time since the Truman presidency."

To belabor the obvious, this is both good and bad news. Energy independence is good, as is deriving it in considerable part from conservation, but increasing fossil fuel production is not so good in that it adds yet more new carbon to the carbon cycle, which makes the oceans more acidic and intensifies the greenhouse effect. A few years ago there was still hope of limiting the increase in global average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius. A very recent report from the World Bank suggests it's going to be hard to hold it under 4 degrees.

(Slightly updated since the original post mainly to add the last paragraph.)

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U.S. projected to soon be world's top energy producer — 2 Comments

  1. There are curious things about this data. US crude oil production peaked in 1971-72, at a level roughly twice the production quantity of 2008. In the meantime, the US population has grown by very close to 50%. I don't know of anyone claiming that we are consuming vastly less oil per capita. So I am curious how we can be producing a bit more than half the oil, for a population roughly 150% of that existing in 1971, and yet somehow, we will be exporting oil for the first time since the Truman administration.

    • I think we're talking about different things here. First, odd as it might seem, it can make economic sense for the U.S. to export crude oil (from Alaska, for example) at the same time that we import crude oil from other places, and from what I've read we're indeed doing that. But we still import more than we export, and according to the IEA that's likely to remain true for another 20 years or so.

      On the other hand, during Obama's first term the U.S. became a net exporter of refined petroleum products, which we had not been since Harry Truman was president. This could result simply from increased refining capacity, but I gather it's also because domestic demand is falling.

      I admit I haven't looked into that in detail, but there are a number of reasons to think that per capital oil consumption probably is less now than it was 40 years ago, and maybe a lot less. Granted, there are a lot of those annoying SUVs around (or FUVs as NPR's Peter Sagal has called them), but a mix of government regulation, better technology from lighter materials to hybrid power, and shifting consumer preferences -- high and volatile gas prices do eventually get people's attention -- have led to lower average vehicle mileage. In addition, we've gradually moved away from oil for such things as home heating and electricity generation. Even a lot of people who still have oil heat have gone in for better windows and increased insulation. Improved conservation in the past and the near future is responsible for about half the improvement in U.S. oil supply picture in the IEA's estimates.

      Finally, domestic crude oil production has been rising with the expanding use of new technology. Even oil deposits previously thought to be exhausted can yield significant new amounts, resulting in increased estimates of recoverable crude.

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